A guest at the Belgian Garden in Mission Hills gave his order, handed his menu to the server and posed a question to his lunch partner.
"Where can I take my family to eat that has a varied menu and isn't expensive?" he asked.
That, of course, is the million-dollar question, and has been for about as long as restaurants have existed. Who among us wouldn't like to eat cheaply and well? Some restaurants have lowered their prices in the last year--if the recession can be said to have any benefits at all, this would be one--but by and large, dining out, even simply, can be a costly proposition.
The answer to the guest's question, however, was right beneath his nose. The Belgian Garden is unlikely ever to be named restaurant of the year, but much of the cafe-style fare is reasonably well prepared and the prices, everything considered, are quite reasonable.
At lunch, some specials are priced below $6, certainly a good price for a hot meal. The dinner menu is somewhat more expensive but offers a choice of any entree, along with soup or salad, for $9.95, or a generously served three-course meal of first course, any entree--including the day's specials--and dessert for $14.95. Ordering a la carte will raise the tab considerably.
The Belgian family that runs this establishment has written a menu devoted almost exclusively to cafe fare, which could be characterized by such thing as the grilled, marinated pork chops and the hache parmentier , a casserole that is something of a Belgian variation on moussaka and layers sliced potatoes and eggplant, spiced ground beef and white sauce. The finished product, baked until lightly crusted, is served with salad on the plate, a typical and likable cafe tradition that is rarely enough encountered in San Diego.
The menu expends little enough time on a la carte starters and settles for such things as smoked salmon with toast, butter and cream cheese, and shrimp or squid in a tomato-flavored butter sauce. On the fixed-price side, however, you can open a meal with a thin slab of Normandy-style pate, finely textured, seasoned highly with green peppercorns and tasting ever so slightly of liver, which gives it definite character.
The alternative to this is a puff pastry bouchee ("mouthful") filled with soft herbed cheese. This ought to be quite a tasty morsel, but the version sampled had been insufficiently or improperly baked, and the pastry resembled an uninflated tire. Sliced tomatoes and a good green salad, all drizzled with a flavorful, mustard vinaigrette, join both of these offerings on the plate, which, from the Belgian Garden's point of view, means that the $14.95 dinners actually consist of four courses.
Given the cafe-like tone of the place, chicken unsurprisingly appears in several guises on both the standing menu and the blackboard that announces the day's specials. The best of these, somewhat unexpectedly, is the simplest, the poulet grille , a charbroiled breast that before cooking has been marinated in a seasoned bath of olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Some of the marinade sauces the flesh and it is, simply put, quite delicious. One night's special, a coq au vin , fell only into the acceptable range; the chicken was tender enough, but the serving only hinted at sauce, while a dish of this sort properly should be lavishly doused.
Yet another special, the cassoulet, was simply disappointing. This famous casserole of white beans, lamb, sausage and other meats usually has the appearance of half-set concrete--which is one reason why not everyone finds himself enamored of the dish--but the Belgian Garden sent out a soupy, half-hearted affair that tasted mostly of bacon. The best that could be said for this was that, like the other entrees, the kitchen piled it on; there is no stinting at quantity here. Many entrees also include the choice of noodles, rice or "Belgian fries," here interpreted not as pan-fried potatoes but as American steak fries, plunged into the deep fat twice, as they do in France, to make them appealingly crisp and puffy.
The evening menu also offers a steak, a slice of grilled, marinated lamb, baked marinated salmon and the fish of the day, of which there typically are several choices. A similar range of seafood specials is offered at lunch, when the choice may range to rainbow trout (priced amazingly at $5.95), sea bass and sole. The blackboard mentioned the latter as Dover sole, which it certainly was not, but good sole it was, nicely cooked and finished with a light butter sauce that tasted of paprika.
The standing lunch menu repeats a few of the evening dishes, including the excellent grilled chicken, and fleshes out the options with sandwiches, crepes and quiches. Quiche is one of those dishes that seems to rise and fall in popularity, but it is a pleasant luncheon dish and Belgian Garden offers three presentable versions, with ham and Swiss cheese, with spinach and a spicy house pie colored with red and green bell peppers.